Your Brain Is Too Polite

Thoughts on Thanksgiving, groupthink, and staying safe

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
4 min readNov 24, 2020

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Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. No gifts, no religious ties, just family and food. Obviously, this year’s Thanksgiving is different from years past. And while I wish everyone would hibernate inside their homes — or at the very least not embark on interstate travel — until spring (and a coronavirus vaccine) arrives, I realize that many people aren’t going to do that, including some of my closest friends.

This isn’t a shaming newsletter (there’s enough of that going around already) but a harm reducing one. If you are going to see your extended family or friends this week, here are a few ways to keep you and your loved ones safe by watching out for common cognitive biases, plus a few tips on how to counteract them. This content is largely pulled from science journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer’s brilliant piece for Elemental last week — which I highly recommend you read in its entirety — on why even the most reasonable people you know (and possibly you yourself) are bending Covid safety rules.

Your brain wants to be around — and liked — by other people 👯

Outdoors, distanced, and masked are the safest steps you can take to protect yourself and others from Covid-19. But despite your best intentions, you may find yourself crossing lines or taking part in activities you had intended not to, like hugging your aunt or taking off your mask indoors.

That’s because humans are social beings that feel compelled to conform. In Moyer’s article, social psychologist Donelson Forsyth sums it up best when he says, “It’s not because we’re irrational. It’s because we’re social creatures.”

As an example, Moyer cites studies from the 1950s where participants were asked simple perceptual questions, like which two lines were the same length. If other people in the group deliberately gave the wrong answer (the study was rigged), the participant would give the same…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental